Mitsuo “Mits” Kawaguchi, a prominent farmer and philanthropist in Orange County, passed away on Jan. 24 in Fountain Valley, surrounded by family. He was 98.
Born on Oct. 7, 1924 in Huntington Beach to Yasu and Hirokichi Kawaguchi, he was immersed in the farming lifestyle at a young age along with his older brother, George, and sisters, Tsuruyo and Teruko.
In 1933, the Long Beach earthquake completely destroyed his grammar school on what was fortunately a day off from school, sparing the students and faculty. They were able to continue their education by holding classes in private homes.
Just five years later, he also survived the Santa Ana River flood, which flooded his family home and farm. He often spoke of how they had to move their horses to higher ground.
Kawaguchi attended Huntington Beach Union High School from the winter of 1940 until 1942. He was on the swim team and held numerous school records in the backstroke. Being a strong swimmer, he also excelled at water polo.
The Pearl Harbor attack on Dec. 7, 1941 disrupted the Kawaguchi family’s way of life. The sentiment in their surrounding community shifted, with a lot of the American public suspicious of anyone of Japanese descent. On Feb. 19, 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which called for the forceful incarceration of all Japanese Americans on the West Coast. The Kawaguchis had just a few days to pack up what they could carry before they were sent to a U.S. concentration camp in Poston, Ariz.
Kawaguchi said this was the scariest time of his life as the temperatures rose to 130 degrees Fahrenheit, people were getting sick, and they were exposed to rattlesnakes and scorpions in the Arizona desert. Yasu, Satoshi, and Teruko remained in the camp until the end of the war in 1945, while after some time in Poston, George and Mitsuo were granted permission to work in Naperville, Ill. on a mushroom farm in order to earn a living for their family.
In 1945, Mitsuo was drafted into the U.S. Army and sent over after Germany surrendered. For 18 months, he served as a military police officer and was assigned to guarding the supply trains in occupied Germany. He and his brother George, who served in the famed 442nd Regimental Combat Team, returned home when their military service ended, rejoining their family in Fountain Valley.
The Kawaguchi family continued to farm after the war. They were more fortunate than many other Japanese American families because they were able to entrust their property and farm equipment to their neighbors, the Courreges family, who protected it from attempted theft and vandalism fueled by anti-Japanese sentiment. In addition to the Courreges’ help, the Kawaguchis’ farm hand, Juan Miranda, stayed on during the war and tended to the land, keeping it in good condition until their return.
In 1952, Kawaguchi met Jeanette Hiroko Niizawa at a dance. They enjoyed going to dances, movies, and spending time together. They married in October 1953, settled in Huntington Beach, and had three children together, Gayle, Tom and Gary. In 1964, Kawaguchi built a home for his family in Fountain Valley.
He formed a partnership with his brother George called Kawaguchi Bros. and specialized in farming asparagus alongside a variety of crops such as chili, tomatoes, string bean, cauliflower, lettuce, and cabbage throughout Los Alamitos, Anaheim, Huntington Beach, and Fountain Valley. From the 1960s to the late ’80s, the brothers farmed a total of 80 acres in Fountain Valley.
In 1989, the brothers officially retired from farming, but they continued to be business partners until George’s passing in 2010 at the age of 91.
After over 40 happy years of marriage together, Kawaguchi’s wife Jeanette passed away in July 1995.
Throughout the years, Kawaguchi enjoyed stamp and coin collecting, leatherwork, woodworking, film photography, and riding his 1947 Harley Davidson motorcycle. He traveled the world from Europe to Japan, and explored different parts of the U.S. He enjoyed gardening and continued to grow a variety of fruits and vegetables in his backyard. He loved playing with his cats, Mia and Sora.
In April 1999, he married his second wife, Michiko Kawauchi.
Kawaguchi was a philanthropist and enjoyed participating in events for his favorite community organization, Orange County Buddhist Church’s Project Kokoro, which was founded 40 years ago as a volunteer and nonprofit outreach program to care for the health and well-being of seniors in the Japanese American community. He was a proud supporter especially because his brother-in-law, Bill Wada, was a founding member. Many wonderful memories were made through Project Kokoro’s field trips, parties, and other events.
In 2009, at the age of 85, he suffered a brain injury from a fall off a ladder. He worked towards a full recovery and even studied the DMV handbook to learn to drive again. After heart bypass surgery in 2011, he took up walking on the treadmill, determined to strengthen his cardiac health.
In 2015 at 91, he was diagnosed with kidney disease, but continued to enjoy life with the support of dialysis treatment three times a week. He never complained.
Kawaguchi enjoyed spending time with his family, especially his grandchildren. In his later years, he was often surrounded by family and looked forward to weekly Sunday barbecues at his house.
He is survived by his sister, Teruko Mori of Glenview, Ill.; his second wife, Michiko Kawaguchi; his children, Gayle (Dale) Hachiya, Tom (Marita) Kawaguchi and Gary (Bernedette) Kawaguchi; grandchildren, Douglas and Stacy Hachiya, Kellyn (Dean) Kawaguchi-La, Cole and Kyle Kawaguchi; and 15 nieces and nephews.
The family requests memorial donations to Project Kokoro c/o Orange County Buddhist Church, 909 S. Dale Ave., Anaheim, CA 92804.
Funeral services were held on Feb. 8 at OCBC with Rev. Jon Turner officiating and Kellyn Kawaguchi-La sharing a remembrance.